Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.

baby spiders

Charlotte's Children

Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears… There is a difference between writing for children and for adults. I am lucky, though, as I seldom seem to have my audience in mind when I am at work. It is as though they didn’t exist.

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlotte’s Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.

by E. B. White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985)
from The Art of the Essay No. 1
in The Paris Review, Issue 48, Fall 1969
image – Son of Groucho

A Sacred Trust

The saying “garbage in, garbage out,” goes straight to the point: putting words to print for public consumption is to partake in a sacred trust, especially where the developing sensibilities of kids are concerned… but let’s not get too precious about it. Go ahead and give us the mouse-boy and the literate spider.

Yes, please. No need to squelch anything unusual – just make it worthy of readers who are “attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick…” Know that readers generally want to be congenial and hope to be reached “honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.” There’s an unvoiced catch there — presenting the goods “honestly, fearlessly and clearly” also works in scams and advertising.

Now that I’ve jumped from talking critters to advertising, here’s a pet peeve. I’m as much of a Schreck fan as anyone, but when licensed character images of Donkey and the rest of them are plastered all over junk food packaging, I lose my faith in storytelling. Wrapping our worst food in the symbols of our most popular creative output makes no sense – our culture deserves better than that. Don’t cheapen creativity, and don’t seduce our kids into eating what is bad for them. License the little plastic toys to grocery stores and put them in snack-sized packages of snap peas and baby carrots.

And, now that I’ve jumped from advertising to peas, here’s a food story. When my daughter was in gradeschool a new little friend came over for dinner and chowed through three servings of baby peas. I didn’t know she was a picky eater who hated them. My policy was to require some of the unfavorite veggie be sampled, because taste buds grow up right along with the rest of us, and if something good for you is unexpectedly good, it’s a shame to miss out. Literature should be like that – a balance of accessible and challenging, and unfamiliar challenges may very well be entertained with delight.

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